The Forgotten Anniversary

Declared in 1979 Iran’s war on the US continues.

by Bruce S. Thornton

Even in years when a national election doesn’t dominate our attention, we seldom think much about an event that happened the first week in November 31 years ago. On the fourth of that month, a band of Iranian students led by Islamic fundamentalists seized the US embassy, taking 66 Americans hostage, 52 of whom would be held for 444 days. With this act, the Iranian Islamic Revolution filled the vacuum of power left after the abdication of the shah some 10 months earlier, and at the same time declared war on America, a war that it has continued to wage for three decades.

The full import of this event even now is not clear to many. The failure to respond forcefully and quickly to this affront to our citizens and property damaged our prestige and emboldened our enemies, as a German newspaper at the time prophesied: “[A] Lilliputian is binding a giant. Such an example invites followers.” Within a month the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, part of a geopolitical rampage throughout the Third World sparked by our display of fear and weakness.

The attack on the embassy followed the abandonment of the shah, a geostrategically important Cold War ally. The failure to support the shah came four years after Congress threw South Vietnam to the communist wolves, and confirmed the impression among our enemies and allies alike that we were in global retreat and hence an unreliable partner.

So much was obvious at the time. Less apparent, however, was the fact that the Iranian Revolution was the first major offensive of the modern jihad against the infidel West. The leader of Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini, was clear about his jihadist intentions — “Our people is the people of blood,” he thundered, “and our school is the school of Jihad.” Nor was his jihad merely about seizing power in Iran: “We will export our revolution to the world. Until the cry ‘There is no God but God’ resounds over the whole world, there will be struggle,” Khomeini announced, and he immediately began to act on this promise.

In the maelstrom of Lebanon, the Iranians nurtured with funds and training the jihadist terror organizations that continue to bedevil the region to this day, particularly Hezbollah, whose 1982 “Program” included among its objectives the universal jihadist goals of combating “abomination” and “its very roots, its primary roots, which are the United States”; destroying Israel, the “Zionist entity”; and exhorting all to “embrace Islam.”

Iran’s war against America drew blood in 1983 when jihadists in Beirut bombed the American embassy, killing 17. Five months later a suicide-bomber destroyed the barracks of US Marines sent as “peace-keepers” into the Lebanese inferno. The attack killed 241 military personnel, the grim climax of a summer of relentless assaults on the Marines’ positions. An Iranian official later admitted that Iran had trained the attackers and that the Iranians were pleased with the carnage.

Reagan’s response to this murder of our troops was as pusillanimous as had been Carter’s to the embassy takeover. While the French and Israelis strafed and bombed the terrorist camps in the Bekaa Valley in retaliation for attacks on their forces, the American troops “left in a rush,” Secretary of State at the time George Shultz wrote in his memoirs, “amid ridicule from the French and utter disappointment and despair from the Lebanese.”

Given this record of retreat in the face of Iranian aggression, we should not be surprised that jihadist outfits like al Qaeda have been emboldened into serially attacking our interests and murdering our citizens. Osama bin Laden’s sermons to his jihadist trainees continually referenced America’s retreat from Vietnam and Beirut as signs of our spiritual exhaustion: “We can conclude that America is a superpower, with enormous military strength and vast economic power, but that all this is built on foundations of straw. So it is possible to target those foundations and focus on their weakest points which, even if you strike only one-tenth of them, then the whole edifice will totter and sway, and relinquish its unjust leadership of the world.” For the jihadists, Iran had led the way in demonstrating the spiritual purity will always trump material power, as Kohmeini had instructed: “Victory is not achieved by swords; it can be achieved only by blood. Victory is not achieved by large populations; it is achieved by strength of faith.”

Thirty years ago Iran declared war on us, and for 30 years has stained its hands with American blood and served as an inspiration and source of support for other jihadists. Iran continues to arm, train, and support the terrorists killing our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and those threatening our Israeli allies. And as we tinker with sanctions and beg the mullahs for diplomatic engagement, the regime continues its relentless march toward acquiring the nuclear weapons that will mark a geometric expansion of the jihadists’ power to inflict violence upon us. Yet we still refuse to take this threat seriously, for the most part because we have not accepted that the regime in Iran is fundamentally Islamic, founded on a rejection of modernity as embodied in the United States, and on a restoration of the pristine practice of Islam that fueled Muslims’ remarkable conquests and 1000-year domination of the West.

The reasons for this misunderstanding lie in our peculiar parochialism that assumes global events and conflicts all unfold and can be understood in terms of Western concepts and categories, particularly a materialist determinism that discounts spiritual motives. In this view, post-colonial revolutions are all about national self-determination and resistance to neo-imperialism. Religious factions may provide energy and shock troops, but in the end secular elites will seize control and get down to the business of running a modern state and integrating itself into the global order. Thus as the Iranian revolution began to build in the late Seventies, American policy-makers missed the significance of the Islamic revivalism led by the Ayatollah Khomeini, who for years had been quite explicit about the religious roots of the revolution against the shah: “We have come to the conclusion,” Khomeini said in 1963, “that this regime also has a more basic aim: they are fundamentally opposed to Islam itself and the existence of a religious class.”

Such statements were ignored or dismissed, and Khomeini himself reduced to a bearded cult-figure who, in the words of Time magazine, offered a “frightening lesson in the shattering power of irrationality.” Khomeini’s acolytes like Osama bin Laden have been given the same treatment, despite their careful theological arguments grounded in the texts and traditions of Islam and its intolerance of other faiths.

In November 2001, bin Laden said, “This war is fundamentally religious. Under no circumstances should we forget this enmity between us and the infidels. For, the enmity is based on creed.” Khomeini had said much the same thing in November 1979: “The Muslims must rise up in this struggle, which is more a struggle between unbelievers and Islam than one between Iran and America: between all unbelievers and the Muslims. The Muslims must rise up and triumph in this struggle.” Yet many in the West reduce these two pious Muslims to “highjackers” and “distorters” of Islam who use the faith to mask their own totalitarian ambitions.

Failing to understand the traditionalist religious roots of jihadist terror, we waste time on “outreach” and other “hearts and minds” tactics that in the end have nothing to do with why the Islamists want to kill us. This dismissal of the Islamic ideology that ignited the Iranian revolution and fuels the mullahcracy in Iran continues to this day, where the regime is courted with the diplomatic carrots and sticks and non-lethal sanctions more useful in relations between secular states and their leaders, for whom sheer survival and enjoyment of power, not obedience to God, are the highest goods. But misunderstanding the enemy or distorting his spiritual motives will not win the long war that for America began in November of 1979. As long as we fail to take seriously the traditional Islamic foundations of jihadist terror, all our efforts will be nothing more than the sound of dogs barking while the jihadist caravan moves on.

©2010 Bruce S. Thornton

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